By Jerome Taylor and Su Xinqi

Western multinationals and local tycoons published newspaper adverts congratulating John Lee on becoming Hong Kong’s next leader, following a rubber-stamp selection process decried as anti-democratic by many major economies Monday.

Ta Kung Pao congratulations John Lee advertisements
Sun Hung Kai Properties and China Tourism Group were among the local corporations congratulating John Lee on being elected as Hong Kong’s new chief executive in Tuesday’s Ta Kung Pao newspaper. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Lee, 64, a former security chief who oversaw the crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy movement, was anointed the business hub’s new leader on Sunday in a near-unanimous vote by a small committee of Beijing loyalists.

He was the sole candidate in the race to succeed outgoing leader Carrie Lam at a time when Hong Kong is being remoulded in China’s authoritarian image.

Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the United States on Monday joined the European Union in voicing alarm.

“We… underscore our grave concern over the selection process for the Chief Executive in Hong Kong as part of a continued assault on political pluralism and fundamental freedoms,” the G7 group said in a joint statement with the EU.

John Lee election
Chief Executive-elect John Lee. Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

Beijing hailed the process as “a real demonstration of democratic spirit” and said it was the culmination of a strategy to ensure only “patriots” run Hong Kong.

Corporate congratulations

Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po, two newspapers that answer to the office which sets Beijing’s Hong Kong policy, were filled with adverts on Monday from leading companies and business figures praising Lee’s selection.

Most were from Chinese and Hong Kong businesses as well as community organisations. 

The “Big Four” accountancy firms — KPMG, Deloitte, EY and PwC — were among Western multinationals placing adverts, as were city airline Cathay Pacific and conglomerates Swire and Jardine Matheson.

Messages were also carried by Hong Kong’s family tycoon-dominated property giants, including Sun Hung Kai and Henderson Land Development.

Ta Kung Pao John Lee advertisement congratulations
Accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers published a message congratulating John Lee on his election in Ta Kung Pao’s Monday paper. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Western businesses have found themselves in an increasingly precarious position in Hong Kong, especially as tensions have risen with China.

Many have embraced progressive political causes in Western markets, such as the anti-racism Black Lives Matter movement, same-sex equality and ridding supply chains of labour abuses.

But they usually steer clear of any criticism of China’s policies towards hotspots such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan.

Some companies such as HSBC, Standard Chartered, Swire and Jardine Matheson publicly backed Beijing’s national security law, which was imposed on Hong Kong after 2019’s democracy protests to curb dissent.

Can Hong Kong reopen?

The elevation of Lee, who is under US sanctions, places a security official in Hong Kong’s top job for the first time after a tumultuous few years for a city battered by political unrest and economically debilitating pandemic controls.

CE election 2022 ballot count
Election staff count the ballots. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Despite the city’s mini-constitution promising universal suffrage, Hong Kong has never been a democracy, the source of years of protests since the 1997 handover from Britain to China.

Lee won 99 percent of the votes cast by the 1,461-strong committee that picks the city’s leader.

The former police officer has vowed to strengthen Hong Kong’s national security and integrate the city further with the mainland.

He wants to reboot the city’s economy and slowly reopen its pandemic-sealed borders at a time when its rivals have moved to living with the coronavirus.

But it is unclear how he can do that given China has doubled down on its strict zero-Covid strategy.

On Monday morning, Lam met her successor and both gave short speeches stressing that they would prepare for an orderly transition.

Lee, who takes over on July 1, was Lam’s security chief and then her deputy.

carrie lam
Chief Executive Carrie Lam meeting the press ahead of her weekly Executive Council meeting on May 10, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

He was asked by reporters whether Hong Kongers could criticise his administration or risk being arrested for “speech crimes” like dozens of democracy activists in recent years. 

Lee took umbrage at that description.

“I think you are very wrong to describe that people are now charged simply because of their expressed opinions,” he said.

“People are brought to court because of the suspicion against them and their actions contravening the law,” he added. “It is their action.”

Lee said his first port of call would be China’s top agencies in Hong Kong — the Liaison Office, the national security committee, the foreign ministry’s office and the People’s Liberation Army garrison.

Correction 11/5: A previous version of our headline inadvertently included HSBC among the firms placing advertisements. HSBC did not place any such ads – we regret the error.

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